Yet another op-ed discussing the controversy of Mass Effect 3’s ending dropped today, this time from Gamesindustry.biz. In it, author Rob Fahey notes that “the advent of the Internet generation has done something deeply unpleasant and disturbing to the word ‘fan'”, going on to describe how the word has gone from meaning “I like this, it speaks to me on some level, I enjoy it, and I’m willing to spend money on it and advocate it” to “I like this, and thus it belongs to me, I own it, and I deserve a say in its future and its direction.”
I don’t argue with Fahey’s key point here — that there are people out there who believe that they should have a say in the way their favourite franchises are run — but I do object to several things about this article. My main point of contention is that the tone of the piece is yet another example of the games press being unnecessarily confrontational towards members of the public, lumping everyone who disliked Mass Effect 3’s ending together into one homogenous group. In reality, it’s rather different — while it’s true that there are people who have gone to the extremes of setting up petitions and complaining to official bodies over the ending, there are also people out there who dislike the ending because it’s badly written, because it feels half-finished, because it feels like an excuse to tack on the obnoxious “Hey! Buy DLC!” dialog box after the ending, and many other valid reasons to say it is a bit poo. (I’m paraphrasing from discussions with several friends and podcasts I’ve listened to here, as I have not played the game and, as you likely know very well by now, will not be doing so.)
Fahey does, however, then touch on an important subject which I believe is what has led us to this whole mess in the first place over the course of the last few years.
“Game companies are excited, delighted, by the idea of having loyal fans,” he writes. “Game companies have engaged with their fans, closely and directly. They nurture their communities. In BioWare’s case, and God knows they’re probably regretting this now, they openly talked about how important fan feedback is to them, about how Mass Effect was a series driven by its fans. It’s become a creed, a mantra. The fans are important. We love our fans. We listen to our fans. Tell people that often enough and they start to believe you — and on the Internet, there are a whole lot of people who don’t need much of a push to believe that they’re important and must be listened to.”
This is correct, but it is not the fault of the fans themselves. Rather, this situation has been exacerbated by the direct engagement with the audience that Fahey notes above. Fahey does concede that the industry has “forgotten that creativity isn’t about the audience, first and foremost, it’s about the creator” but seemingly shies away from what has actually caused this problem.
Two words: social media.
In BioWare’s case, their seemingly exemplary social media strategy of direct, personal engagement with fans has actually turned out to be their downfall. Let’s take a look at a bit of background to this.
For starters, a while back the company’s own social media coordinator Erika Kristine took the bold step of providing an open link to her own personal Facebook profile. Fans were able to befriend her and talk to her directly — though, disappointingly, as an attractive female, many of the comments she ended up getting on her page and photos tended to be of the “ur so beautiful” creepy variety rather than people wanting to engage with her. Perhaps unsurprisingly, her personal Facebook presence appears to have vanished, to be replaced by a “fan page” which hasn’t been updated since November of 2011. The damage was done, though — longtime fans knew that Erika, a human being, was in charge of BioWare’s social media, and thus opened the gates for “negotiation”.
Then there was the FemShep incident. What was previously a quirky subculture of the Mass Effect community — the cultish love for the female incarnation of Commander Shepard, voiced by Jennifer Hale — was adopted as a marketing tool by EA and BioWare. We started to get promises of FemShep trailers, FemShep art on the box, FemShep this, FemShep that. The whole thing came to a head with the odious “beauty pageant” public vote where subscribers to BioWare’s Mass Effect page on Facebook were able to vote on which of a variety of computer-generated hotties — very few of which are actually possible to create using the in-game character creation tools — would become the “official face of FemShep”. When the community objected to the fact that a “predictable” blonde, blue-eyed FemShep was winning the competition, the company opened another round of voting, this time providing a choice of hair colours for the same model FemShep. (We ended up with a redhead — a decision I applaud, but that’s beside the point.)
These aren’t isolated incidents, and they’re not limited only to BioWare and EA. Most major game publishers these days have hopped on the social media audience engagement bandwagon and regularly post questions, invite feedback and hold votes for everything from which athlete should be on the front cover of this year’s Madden game to what colour Serah’s panties should be in the inevitable upskirt scene in Final Fantasy XIII-2. All right, I made that last one up, but given that Konami promoted NeverDead with an interactive picture where the game’s heroine Arcadia stripped off more and more clothing as more people Liked the page, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. This revolting marketing ploy has thankfully disappeared now the game’s page has moved to Timeline view.
Given the way developers and publishers interact with their fans, though, is it any wonder that some have started to feel like they have the right to exert some degree of “crowdsourced control” over their favourite franchises? If they can influence what FemShep looks like, why can’t they influence the ending of Mass Effect 3?
In short, the industry has backed itself into this corner and no amount of complaining about how “entitled” the more vocal fans are is going to change that. These fans may well have a sense of entitlement, but that has come from somewhere — it hasn’t just appeared from thin air. And no-one seems willing to acknowledge this fact, perhaps largely because it’s much too late to do anything about now. Pandora’s Box has been opened, Liked and Shared with eleventy bajillion people around the world, and it’s going to be very difficult to close it again.
In order to fix this, developers and publishers need to take a step back from their audience, to stop engaging with them quite so directly and to stop soliciting feedback on every little irrelevant detail of, say, how many tassels there should be on the new Assassin’s Creed dude’s hoodie. If developers don’t want a repeat of this whole Mass Effect 3 fiasco, then they need to stand back behind a barrier that carries a big sign reading “Look, chumps, we made this, and we hope you enjoy it. You’re free to not enjoy it if you so please, but it is what it is — finished, complete, tied up with a pretty pink bow. If you enjoy it? Great. We’ll keep making more if you keep buying them. If you don’t like it? Don’t buy it, then we’ll know we need to do something else.”
“This isn’t a situation that’ll change overnight,” concludes Fahey’s piece, “not least because immense inertia defines the role of ‘fans’ in our industry — but it’s important for game creators to realise that things don’t have to be this way. Engagement with fans doesn’t have to mean letting the lunatics run the asylum, or even giving them the impression that they’ve been given the keys to the office.”
His conclusion here is valid — this is exactly what game creators need to do. You can’t crowdsource a big-budget game and expect it to come out coherently, so don’t encourage people to think that’s an option. However, the fact that some people have already come to that conclusion thanks to social media oversaturation doesn’t make them “sociopaths”, as Fahey calls them — it means that they have been brought to that conclusion via precedents set by the people they are complaining to. Similarly, those who simply dislike the ending on the grounds that it’s just not very good — particularly when the rest of the series is used as a yardstick to measure it against — aren’t being “entitled” or “sociopathic”, they’re just rather unfortunately finding their opinions lumped in with those who are taking more extreme arguments.
I hope the industry learns from this experience, but I have a suspicion it won’t.